#215: Blood on His Hands (1937) by Max Afford

blood-on-his-handsPhilo Vance.  ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’  by Edgar Allan Poe.  Raspberry Jam by Carolyn Wells.  ‘The Fairy Tale of Father Brown’ by G.K. Chesterton.  The Clue of the New Pin by Edgar Wallace.  A character who is detective novelist of some repute.  Characters in a detective story discussing whether they are behaving like people in a detective story.  All these references and more can be found in the opening salvo of Max Afford’s debut novel, following the discovery of a man stabbed in the back in his locked study with the only key to the specially-constructed lock in his possession, the murder weapon missing, and some subtly esoteric clews that give rise to plenty of canny evaluation and then re-evaluation.  Aaah, I love the Golden Age.

Following my 1937 thesis, Rich at Past Offences has gamely made 1937 the year under observation for Crimes of the Century this month, and so I’ll be raiding my TBR stack to contribute what I can.  And first up is a return to Afford, whose prologue here shows a man who has done a lot of descriptive writing for radio at full tilt:

With a rattling and ringing of steel against steel, the train flung itself across a trembling iron bridge and dived into a cutting.  It swayed between the deep clay walls, and it was as though an invisible hand had drawn dark blinds outside the carriage windows.  The weak yellow lights in the ceiling glowed brighter.  They faded again as the blinds were raised with the passing of the cutting and the train raced across the flat countryside once more.

The story finds us in Afford’s native Australia, with the murder of a judge kicking everything off once that train reaches its destination; the reason for that prologue becomes clear, but things don’t really settle until Chief Inspector William Jamieson Read and genius amateur Jeffery Blackburn appear to take over the case.  Much discussion of the tropes of locked room murders is to be had — see above — since such things had become a fixture of detective fiction by now, and then we’re off into a brisk and intelligent little piece of ratiocination that celebrates the genre as much as anything you’re likely to read from this era.

Inevitably, fascinating off-hand facts permeate the narrative: the currency at this time was pounds sterling, not Australian dollars; not every patron of a theatre or cinema got a ticket stub to prove their alibi, it depended on the type of seat you sat in; I finally understand what a cork-tipped cigarette is, as many brands are sold unfiltered (everyone smokes — everyone; if this were an Edmund Crispin novel there would doubtless have been an authorly apology for a delay in proceedings while he waited for the fog to clear so he could continue describing the action).  For people like myself who take an additional pleasure in such historical minutiae alongside their murder, it’s a veritable smorgasbord of throwaway details indigenous to this period.

The classic detective fans will find much to enjoy, too.  The locked room murder is suitably styled along classic lines, and enriched with touches like the reporters for the various papers essentially being given a tour of the crime scene(!) by the officer in charge.  Read and Blackburn have plenty of opportunity to cannily reverse the deductions drawn from gorgeously simple evidence — the extended reflection of what those cigarettes mean, for instance — and we’re even treated to two crime scene maps (paper rationing having not yet kicked in), click below for a better look:

Flaws do creep in as we progress, however.  The coincidence that links three characters is part and parcel of this kind of endeavour, but having your victim carry around the key clue for it to become relevant only because he’s murdered is a short-hand that doesn’t quite fly.  Additionally, the final stretch requires our detectives to be quite staggeringly dense, and behave in a way that will later allow them to unmask the killer purely because they behaved as they did and the guilty party did something they didn’t know was going to be done.  A lot of speechifying ties up the various threads come the close, too, and given the uncluttered way Afford has handled almost everything else it feels a but like he’s sighed, thrown his hands up, and gone “Okay, dammit, now let’s just have someone explain it all…”.

I do really like Afford’s writing, though, and he shows a canny insight by — for instance — allowing the first murder to remain unexplained until the end, but explaining the second one almost immediately by use of some likely and suitably obscure clews.  Doubt is sewn in very effectively, too, and while the killer is heavily tipped with a little way to go, I appreciate the classic construction used for the final capture.  Not quite Poirot gathering everyone together to talk though the inexorable logic of the clues, but thankfully not a gangsters-and-guns chase and shoot-out either.

A good first entry in the hallowed halls of detective fiction, then, though Afford would go on to improve greatly in this area.  Also interesting to note that the sensitivities of the time could take discussion about a body having been stabbed multiple times in a…delicate…area, but that someone would be told to mind their own — and I quote — “bl_______ business”.  As Blackburn himself would have it, curiouser and curiouser…

star filledstar filledstar filledstarsstars

See also

Kate @ CrossExaminingCrime: [T]he pace and tension mounts as the story progresses and although the feel of tale becomes distinctly more modern once the narrative shifts to Melbourne, I still think the gothic atmosphere of the novel’s opening remains in the figure of bearded man who seems to glide through the story in a sinister way.

TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: It’s an intriguing, classically styled set-up for a proper locked room murder, but the explanation is essentially an old, simple, but elaborately presented, gimmick that only worked because police methods aren’t always up to snuff in detective stories. Later on in the series, Afford would show he had a crafty and original mind for devising impossible crime plots, but that was not the case with his first throw at one.


The novels of Max Afford, published by Ramble House:

1. Blood On His Hands (1937)
2. Death’s Mannikins (1937)
3. The Dead are Blind (1937)
4. Owl of Darkness (1942)
5. Sinners in Paradise (1946)
6. The Sheep and the Wolves (1947)

Additionally, they’ve collected three of his short stories (including ‘Poison Can be Puzzling’, which I looked at here) under the title Two Locked Room Mysteries and a Ripping Yarn, which TomCat reviewed in full here.


I submit this novel for the Vintage Cover Scavenger Hunt 2017 at My Reader’s Block under the category A Red Object (because I have no idea what that is on the cover, but some of it is definitely red…).

For the Follow the Clues Mystery Challenge, this links to The Conjure-Man Dies from last week because — and this is barely a spoiler, I promise — in both cases the killer utilises a physical disguise to achieve their ends.

18 thoughts on “#215: Blood on His Hands (1937) by Max Afford

  1. Very impressed by how far through Afford’s work you are. Just two to go! Seems I enjoyed this book more than you, but then I haven’t got your keen mind to spot the flaws in the puzzle aspect. Least we’re agreed on the strength of Afford’s writing style.


    • Ha, well the other way of looking at it is that he only write six books; sure, as a proportion I’m doing well, but on blunt numbers it’s nothing special 🙂

      And, c’mon, it’s not that I have a keen mind or that you lack one, we’re just after different things. There’s something about what I’m after in a book where certain plotting conceits begin to feel like filler — I don’t know what it is exactl, but at times it’s undeniable to me that the author is spinning teir wheels to line uip the next thing, and hasn’t quite figured out a concise way to get there. Now, full credit to anyone who has both completed and published a novel — they’re two up on me — but it detracts from my enjoyment in a weirdly exponential way…


  2. Thanks for the maps ! They are not available in the ebook available with me, downloaded from Project Gutenberg Australia.
    I agree more or less with your views. It does not deserve a rating of more than 3.


    • I love me a crime scene map, and couldn’t find these elsewhere so thought them worth sharing. Nice to know there’s some advantage to having the book over Gutenbering it (and, hey, I’m not knocking Gutenberg — they’ve provided me with more than a few over the years…). Glad you enjoyed them, and that we agree on this one — it’s a solid start, for sure, but tails off as it goes. Which is kind of a shame, but he did improve massively after this.


  3. “There’s something about what I’m after in a book where certain plotting conceits begin to feel like filler — I don’t know what it is exactly, but at times it’s undeniable to me that the author is spinning their wheels to line up the next thing, and hasn’t quite figured out a concise way to get there…….”

    May I borrow this line? I’m gearing up to review my first Patricia Wentworth mystery, and I couldn’t have put it better . . .

    Liked by 1 person

      • I’m still reading it. It’s funny, I knew I had bought ONE, and it just happened to be the book she wrote in 1937. Kismet, what??? It’s THE CASE IS CLOSED. So far, they’re killing me with the backstory. And I feel that this might be the smallest cast of characters she worked with. I guess that, in a way, it’s an “impossible crime,” since everyone has an alibi except the innocent guy. It’s drawing comparisons to Carr’s THE JUDAS WINDOW . . . and not in a good way.


        • Don’t think I had the same issue with the backstory element, but then again I read it early on in my crime fiction reading days. May have more of a problem with it now. I don’t think all of Wentworth’s book have this issue, not that that is much comfort to you, mid way through the book.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. So you ran through Afford’s locked room novels first and left his regular mysteries for last. Well, I can’t blame you and agree with both you and Santosh about this one. Three stars is about right. Maybe two-and-a-half would be more accurate, but I can agree with three. And all the historical minutiae in Golden Age mysteries are wonderful extras (if you like historical stuff).

    By the way, Latimer’s The Search for My Great-Uncle’s Head was actually on my short list. Guess I’ll have to bump it down now.


    • I discovered Afford because the title Owl of Darkness caught my eye (as it does) and I thought it sounded so ridiculous that I had to give it a go; from there, it was a bit of a guessing game — think I did Death’s Mannikins next, then Dead Are Blind, by whih [point I’d researched the order and found that I was all over the shop. So the sensible thing seemed to be steadying the ship and then making a later sally upon his laster work. That’s about as much panning as goes into anything, I’m afraid.

      And, hey, why bump the Latimer down? Can;t we both look at the same book? Might be fun to compare and contrast with a book fresh in the memory…

      Incidentally, I’ve tried replying to a few Blogspot blog posts of late and something ain’t right because with your, John, Curtis, and a few others it’s not letting me put up anything. Dunno what’s going on, but I wanted to assure you that I’m not ignoring you all, technology is just being weird.


      • No idea what the problem is with either blogspot or wordpress. I put no restrictions on my comments. Everyone can post, even anonymously, without approval. So no idea why some comments vanish into a void. Anyhow, I recommend that, when commenting on blogspot, you pick “Name/URL” in the drop menu of “Comment As.” It might work if you simply fill in a username (i.e. JJ) and the URL of your blog instead of using the wordpress inlog option.

        Well, I might keep the Latimer on the list. Hm. I’ll look if I can somehow coincide it with your post next week, but don’t pin me on it.


        • I’ve treid various things on various blogs, but something’s up. Dunno, will see if I can work something out.

          Interestingly, derspite you commenting here more than a few times in the past, your last two comments have had to be approved by me, too, when they shold just appear automatically (since I’ve already vetted you before). Maybe this is the machines taking over; this is how it starts…

          Liked by 1 person

            • Interesing that I’ve not had this problem before; had to approve this one, too. I’m telling you, this is how the robot uprsigin starts.


              Liked by 1 person

    • This is the only Afford of the four I’ve read with an outright impossible crime (well, two in this case). Death’s Mannikins and The Dead Are Blind are both borderline with their impossibilities — TDAB moreso, undoubtedly — and Owl ofDarkness has an implied impossible element that is never really stressed or even, if I remember, referred to explicitly in the plot.

      TDAB and OOD are the best two, I’d be inclined to start with either of them, then do BoHH or DM, then the remainder from TDAB and OOD and then the remained of BoHH and DM. If you follow me.

      And of course there are still the two I haven’t read, but I have no idea how good they might be, for obvious reasons.

      Liked by 1 person

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